The myth about pastors, simply stated, is that we are helpers; that ours is a helping profession, counted alongside doctors and nurses and emergency responders and teachers and social workers.
Over and over again in my ministry, however, I am reminded that pastors are not helpers. We are not fixers or healers or solvers. We do not, cannot, provide help. Which may sound shocking, because people often turn to pastors for help … and pastors, in turn, like to think that they provide concrete help to others. But no, it is all a myth.
A story might add some explanation to my myth-busting:
This past week, my congregation loaned me out to the wider church to volunteer at our denominational outdoor camp. For seven days, my pastoral time and energy were focused on keeping an energetic group of 3rd – 6th graders safe as they climbed mountains & hiked streams & developed new friendships & peered closely at poison ivy, and on creating opportunities for them to connect the concept of God with the natural world around them.
At camp, falls and scrapes and bumps and bruises occur frequently. In my experiences with this particular age group, every fall or scrape or bump or bruise is inevitably a painful reminder to a young person that camp is not home. Last week, there was one camper in my group for whom a bumped toe prompted homesickness-related sleeping difficulties. “I can’t fall asleep, are you sure that we shouldn’t call the camp nurse to look at my toe, the ice pack isn’t helping, I have to pee (1am), I have to pee (4am).” “It’s okay, I can look at your foot again, I can walk with you down the path to the bathroom, let’s wrap your toe in a Hello Kitty bandage.”
But at the end of all that I could do for my camper and her toe at 4am, she still had to fall asleep in her bunk by herself. She still had to lie in her sleeping bag and navigate her own way through those dark-of-night moments of worry, the tears of homesickness, and the fears of that spider on the ceiling. I could not help her with those things. For all of the ways that I could talk and listen and keep her company and provide band-aids and emphasize that any deer wandering through camp would be more afraid of her than she was of it, ultimately she was alone with her thoughts. I could not get into her brain to help relieve the busy fears in her mind. I could not take every bug out of the cabin or add electricity to our small A-frame or make camp feel more like home so that she would feel more at ease during the night. She alone had to get herself to sleep.
I cannot help to mend or provide the tangible things of life, nor even help to resolve the emotional and spiritual wrestlings of life. I can be present; I cannot help.
The same truth plays out in my parish: I can sit and talk with a widow, but at the end of our conversation she will still return to a startlingly empty home; I cannot help to ease her heartache when she turns to tell her now-gone loved one a funny snippet about the day; I cannot help her find a new pattern for falling asleep without her spouse beside her. I can hear and affirm someone’s hard questions of faith or their grappling reaches for God when those are shared with me over coffee or from a hospital bed, but I cannot hand out pre-packaged faith and I cannot help someone feel the Eternal Steadfast Rock beneath his feet if he is convinced that It is not there. I can visit a child or a grandparent in the hospital, but I cannot help their bodies feel better. I can say small words of compassion when people call my church looking for food, for rent assistance, for enough gas to drive to a new job, for new school clothes for their children; I cannot fix their finances or reassure their desperation, even though I am more truthful than they might know when I say “I understand.”
But I cannot help.
All of this may be not be profound, I suspect. It may just seem that I am taking “help” too literally. Of course I cannot actually cause someone to fall asleep. Of course I cannot make someone believe in God or hold onto faith. Of course I cannot heal a body as a physician might. Of course the tangible forms of aid that I can offer are limited. “That doesn’t mean that pastors aren’t helpers.” I can hear the objections now.
Although sometimes I bemoan the limits of my usefulness, in fact I feel no need for guilt or self-flagellation or even encouraging responses of “You are a great helper!” In the best light, the clearing-away of this “pastor = helper” myth frees me to do the work of my actual calling:
I am a walker … or rather, a walk-with-er.
My calling in ministry — our calling in ministry as pastors — is to walk with people, not to help them. To observe life together with them, not to fix it. To point out God moments (and Hell moments) along the journey, but not to be God. To witness to faith & love & Spirit in such a way that others feel emboldened in faith & love & Spirit, but not to claim the final authority or greatest insight on it all. To remind the community that we can do more (and here’s the ironic, contradictory, counter-intuitive twist where we would otherwise buy into the helper myth) by making room for everyone’s gifts to be used and included, not by burning every last iota of my own energy and gifts. To listen to the questions for which there are not answers, not to present an unshakable certainty about life and God.
We are walk-with-ers, walk-beside-ers. It is an enormous and humbling call. But it is not synonymous with being called to help others.
Perhaps it seems superfluous to try to dispel the helper myth. What’s the harm, after all, of thinking that pastors can help people? Isn’t it simply a nuancing of verbs?
The danger of churches continuing to believe (because many churches do believe) that their pastors are helpers is that congregations will rely solely on their pastors to do the work of community-building and pastoral care. It is the danger of congregations hoping in vain that the face of a new (and often young) pastor will alone resurrect a congregation. It is the danger of congregations requiring the pastor to single-handedly accomplish the healing of dysfunctions and of timid faith and of low attendance without any obligation or participation from the congregation.
The danger of pastors believing that they are helpers is that they/we will burn out from trying to help. That in our eagerness to be helpful to all people, we will forget our limitations. That we will neglect to invite the congregation to participate in its own ministry. That we will abuse our authority and overstep boundaries in our righteous (and self-righteous) certainty that we can provide help. That we will hurt our congregations in our rush to save them, in our forgetfulness to walk with them.
I am at a loss for a grand conclusion, except to repeat again that the helper myth risks far more damage than good for pastors and congregations alike. At a recent ordination & installation service at which I presented the charge to both ordinand and congregation, I observed aloud that pastors are not Jesus; we are witnesses to what Jesus does. We are witnesses to people’s lives and to the life of a congregation. We are invitation-givers who call the entire body to do the work of following Christ. Sometimes we are the dreamers and leaders, but foremost we are the walk-beside-ers who observe the wild/wide range of life & faith in such a way that the community itself catches sight of the path and finds the compassion to lead one another on the journey.
I am a walk-with-er.
I am a pastor, not a helper.